Terminator technology is Immoral Fr. Seán McDonagh

A worrying aspect of GM technology was the development by the Delta and Pine Land company (later acquired by Monsanto) of what is benignly called a Technology Protection System, but what is more aptly known as ‘Terminator’ technology. Because ‘terminator’ seeds self-destruct after the first crop, this technology, if it becomes widespread, will surely strike the death knell for the two billion small  subsistence farmers who live mainly in the Majority (Third) World. Sharing seeds among farmers has been at the very heart of agriculture since its inception 11,000 years ago. ‘Terminator’ technology would effectively stop farmers sharing seeds. Hope Shand, a research director with the Canadian ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), is alarmed at such a development: ‘Half the world’s farmers are poor. They provide food for more than one billion people, but they cannot afford to buy seeds for every growing season. Seed collection is vital for them.’[1]

‘Terminator’ technology will enable the transnational agribusiness corporations to control and profit from farmers in every corner of the globe. It will lock farmers into a regime of buying genetically engineered seeds that are herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant – and so copper-fasten farmers onto the chemical treadmill at a point when oil is very expensive.

At the ethical level I would argue that a technology which, according to Professor Richard Lewontin of Harvard University, introduces ‘a “killer” transgene that prevents the harvested grain from developing’[2] must be considered grossly immoral. It is a sin against the poor who will go hungry, against nature and against the God of all creativity and compassion. Furthermore, if there is horizontal gene spread, the Terminator gene could spread to other neighbouring crops. History is littered with examples of humans carrying species from one place to another with disastrous consequences. Think of the damage which the introduction of rabbits and cane toads has done in Australia!

But the promoters of GMOs, who originally said that gene flow was impossible, now want to introduce a new genetically engineered technology which will make it possible to reverse the sterility of the seeds.  Once again it is clear to Hope Shand of the ETC Group that: ‘A scenario in which farmers would have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability creates a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry. Even if these “Zombie seeds” are not being designed with the intent to restrict seed use, the reality is that farmers will end up having to pay for the privilege of restoring seed fertility every year. Zombie seeds are no  more acceptable than suicide seeds – there is simply no such thing as a safe and acceptable form of Terminator.’[3]

The fundamental point is that in creating the ‘terminator’ gene the scientists involved use knowledge and technologies which they have received from others to attack the very principle of life itself. Such activity is especially harmful within an evolutionary context because it could jeopardise the whole evolutionary process. This is particularly true if ‘terminator’ genes spread to other plants. And this is happening at a time when the extinction of species is rampant.

The theologian Michael Northcott points out that the new Gaian cosmology of James Lovelock stipulates that ‘there are moral and biophysical limits to what humans can do on planet earth, just as the ancients held’.[4] At an even deeper theological level, Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas argues that men and women are appointed priests of creation. This means that humans depend on ‘their right relationship with the material creation for their own redemption’.[5] Destroying the life principle in an organism is certainly not a right relationship with creation. This ought to be received as a gift from God to be shared by all.

‘Terminator’ technology eliminates the principle of regeneration at the heart of creation: ‘I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ (John 12:24). ‘Terminator technology  involves  stealing  knowledge from local communities and small farmers. It ignores the people’s voice, especially those farmers who wish to farm in a sustainable way.  It disempowers women, who in many poor communities play a leading role in seed saving and seed sharing.

The corporate world, apparently oblivious to these concerns, is eager to commercialise the ‘terminator’ gene. Religious groups and those who care about the future of agriculture

[1] Quoted in John Vidal, ‘Mr Terminator ploughs in’, The Guardian, April 14, 1998.

[2] Jean-Pierre Berlan and Richard C Lewontin, ‘It’s business as usual’, The Guardian, February 22, 1999.

[3] Quoted in ‘Suicide-Seed Sequel: EU’s “Transcontainer” turns Terminator into Zombie’, news release, ETC Group, June 13, 2007, available at http://www.etcgroup.org.

[4] Michael Northcott, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007, p69.

[5] Quoted in Michael Northcott, as above, p78.


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